Carole Lombard’s nine years of stardom
MY MAN GODFREY: This one’s ’30s-style eccentricity is hugely entertaining.
Carole Lombard rose to stardom in 1934 and was dead by 1942, killed in a plane crash on her way back from selling war bonds; her last picture, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, was released posthumously. She was one of the great funny girls of the Depression era, as witness the five features in the Brattle’s upcoming series “Carole Lombard: No Dumb Blonde” (October 18-23). Her compact but pointed face, the soft blond crown of hair, the sleek, elegant frame that satin and silk and lamé either clung to or dripped off, all made her a ’30s icon — the billboard for her 1936 film Love Before Breakfast is at the center of one of Walker Evans’s photographs. In straight pictures she was competent and always lovely, but she was at her best in comedies, where she could add a goofy quality to her glamor.
|“Carole Lombard: No Dumb Blonde” | Brattle Theatre: October 18-23|
The films in the series include her three finest — TWENTIETH CENTURY (October 19-20), MY MAN GODFREY (October 18 + 23), and NOTHING SACRED (October 21-22) — as well as her two last, MR. & MRS. SMITH (October 21-22) and TO BE OR NOT TO BE (October 19-20). Twentieth Century, superbly directed by Howard Hawks from a breakneck script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, came out in 1934, the year the Production Code went into effect and filmmakers invented romantic comedy as a way of negotiating the creative restrictions it placed on them. It’s a mixture of romantic (screwball) and backstage comedy. Lombard plays Mildred Plotka, a lingerie-model-turned-actress who lands the lead in a Broadway play because producer Oscar Jaffe (the inimitable John Barrymore) — who promptly renames her Lily Garland — is convinced he can turn her into a sensational actress. He succeeds, and they become partners, on stage and off. But his megalomania and jealousy eventually drive her away — to Hollywood, where she becomes an even bigger star. The movie, most of which takes place three years later on board the Twentieth Century, the cross-country train that was all the rage in the period, is about a pair of battling egomaniacs who can’t distinguish between theater and life; even when Lily bemoans her own penchant for unending melodrama, she’s playing a scene.
This was the role that made Lombard a star. It enabled her to perfect her comic equipment: the silver-frosted alto voice that floats up when she gets excited; the eyes that can fix fervently on a romantic object or zip around like marbles in a pinball machine; the perfectly pitched diva-style tantrums; the seemingly bottomless repertoire of stylized gesture. Screaming that everyone keeps hammering at her, she drills at her temples with balled-up fists while she stamps her feet, looking like one of those wind-up monkeys that play a tin instrument. Lombard and Barrymore are an inspired pair of lunatic monsters. No movie captured the excesses of theater people with as much hilarity until All About Eve and Singin’ in the Rain in the early ’50s.
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